Irish evening, and Claire Keegan

February 3, 2010 at 8:33 pm (Book review, books, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Short stories)

Here in Howard County, we are blessed with the presence of a wonderful, and wonderfully named, organization. The stated aim of  the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society – commonly known in these parts as HoCoPoLitSo – is “… to enlarge the audience for contemporary poetry and literature and the world literary heritage.” A noble goal! And one that is assiduously pursued by this fine group.

The best known event organized by HoCoPoLitSo is the Annual Irish Evening of Poetry and Music. Every February, we Howard Countians are given the chance to replenish our inner Irishman and Irishwoman with music, dance, and a talk by a literary light from the Emerald Isle. (Click here for more information about the Irish evening, which will take place on Friday night February 19.)

This year’s speaker is Claire Keegan.

Ms Keegan, who hails from County Wicklow in Ireland, has won several prizes for her stories. Having just read a good portion of her collection Walk the Blue Fields, I can understand why. These stories are both luminous and heartbreaking. 

In “A Long and Painful Death,” a writer comes to Boll House on Achill Island in order to work in peace and quiet. But her solitude is violated by a visitor, a man unknown to her and to whom she takes an almost instant dislike. He disrupts her world, but in keeping with that world, she gets the better of him. “The Forester’s Daughter,” the longest story in the book, is about the frustration ordinary people can encounter when they seek contentment within the family circle. Deegan’s great possession and purpose in life is Aghowle, his farm. He needs a wife and so he proposes to Martha Dunne. “Martha’s instinct told her to refuse but she was thirty years of age and if she said no this question might never be asked of her again.” And so she consents.

The couple have three children. The middle one, a boy, is afflicted with Down’s Syndrome. The youngest, their only daughter,  is a child with a rare spirit, much doted on by her mother. And there’s a dog, given by Deegan to the girl on her twelfth birthday. She names him Judge. I love the way Keegan writes about this animal, getting inside his head in a way that is utterly believable and not a bit saccharine. Judge plays a crucial role in the events that unfold in this compelling tale.

I really liked the title story, in which a priest is faced with an agonizing dilemma. Much of the writing in this collection is powerful and eloquent; this is especially true of “Walk the Blue Fields:”

‘On either side the trees are tall and here the wind is strangely human. A tender speech is combing through  the willows. In a bare whisper, the elms lean. Something about the place conjures up that ancient past: the hound, the spear, the spinning wheel. There’s pleasure to be had in history. What’s recent is another matter and painful to recall.

How true that last bit about the painful present as opposed to the distant past. And what a marvelous evocation of that past! I reminded of what the late Donald Dewar, then Secretary of State for Scotland, said in 1999 in his speech to the newly reconstituted Scottish Parliament.


Last year’s Irish evening featured a very special speaker: Frank McCourt. Although he appeared physically frail that night, McCourt had lost none of his fiery power of expression. Quite simply, he was great.

And just a few months later, he was gone.


  1. Kevin Odell said,

    I wish I could be there to hear Ms. Keegan.
    Please let her know that her story in the New Yorker, “Foster” made me weep.
    Kind regards,
    Kevin Odell

  2. Friday night, February 19: we emerge gratefully from our snowbound solitude to celebrate the Thirty-Second Annual Evening of Irish Music and Poetry « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] wrote about this story in a previous post, and I feel  that I benefited greatly from hearing the author herself read it. It seems to me now […]

  3. At a meeting of the Usual Suspects: Simenon/Maigret, and other matters… « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Several of us had read Christine Falls. Our verdict: it was okay, not great; we weren’t inclined to continue with the series. It was mentioned that  the appearance of the stereotypical inebriated Irishman was dismaying. (This thought had occurred to me some months ago while I was reading Claire Keegan’s fine stories.) […]

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